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Piczo Plays It Safe

David A. Utter
Staff Writer
Published: 2006-10-04

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After enjoying a successful run in the United Kingdom and other countries, social networking site Piczo has arrived on US shores, and CEO Jeremy Verba emphasized safety and privacy as the points of difference between it and similar sites.

"This is the biggest social networking site you haven't heard of yet," Verba told me during our phone conversation about Piczo. The site has 17 million sites registered and created by its users, with 10 million uniques and 2.5 billion page views per month.

Here's what search followers will find surprising about Piczo. There is no search function to find other users.

That is one of Piczo's privacy aspects, Verba said, designed by intent. Piczo is "more of a private party," he said. The site's growth has happened virally, without any advertising other than what its users have done through word of mouth.

Piczo started off as a photo sharing site, but its features prompted requests from users to implement it as a social networking destination. Verba said after 100 emails requesting this, Piczo made that change.

"It's more of a private party," Verba said in comparing Piczo to its better-known competitors. Someone can sign up for the site and use its media creation tools, but networking with others works on an invitation basis.

They focus on the teen market, with much of Piczo's userbase being female and aged 13-16. To date these members have been primarily located outside the US. The youthful focus motivated the company to go for a "walled garden" approach.

"I believe privacy and control in these environments are paramount," Verba said. That control is enabled by the invitation-only networking, and the self-expression the teen audience can explore in creating their Piczo sites.

That audience has become tougher to target for advertisers. Verba noted the demise of two teen-oriented magazines in the US, and the end of the long-running Top of the Pops music show on the BBC, as showing how hard it is to get a marketing message in front of the much-desired teen demographic.

Piczo has embarked on a combination of advertising and sponsorships for its business model. The company has talks in progress to partner with other firms as well.

Verba mentioned the privacy and control theme several times during our conversation, particularly noting that it is the teens who want that control and safety. After our chat, I found a couple of things that may indicate Piczo has some additional education efforts to make with its members.

For one, Piczo does not ban search engines from indexing its content. Unless a user password-protects his or her page, Google and others can index them without difficulty. That makes it trivial to find a person on the site who has a name and other identifying information like city or school on a profile.

It also renders the no-search aspect of Piczo partially moot, and teens should be aware of this when making a profile without a password.

A little innocent carelessness also allowed me to access a password-protected page in seconds. On Piczo's main page, a group of public profiles appear as a series of images. Clicking one goes to a profile.

One of Piczo's media elements that can be incorporated in a profile is a chat box. When I clicked one profile at random, the profile I happened upon had one, and at that moment another user had posted another Piczo member's URL and password. A couple of clicks later, I could view the protected profile.

That is an education issue, something that may be hard to get across to some in the teen audience. Piczo does have a much better focus on privacy and safety than most. They want to be known to parents as a safe choice, and engaged Parry Aftab of WiredSafety.org to write a guide about Piczo.

Verba also emphasized they cooperate with law enforcement at a high level. Piczo employs a team of people who watch for abuse reports and other activity that runs afoul of the terms of service.

If Piczo can scale its membership in the US, and continue to keep on top of potential privacy or safety issues, they could be a model that other social networking teen sites follow.

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About the Author:
David Utter is a staff writer for WebProNews covering technology and business.

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